So I checked out Funny People over the weekend and I’m sad to report that I was uber-disappointed by it. I didn’t find it all that funny and have to agree with my friend Shep’s sentiments that it was kind of an unbelievable mess. Too long with too much happening. Comedy works better in shorter bursts, even though you can mark down The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s first two directorial efforts, as exceptions to that very shaky rule.
I wasn’t terribly surprised by my disappointment, though. Apatow’s first two films were so good that he was bound to strike out sooner or later, and even though Funny People (here comes the one obvious riff on the film’s title that I will allow myself) isn’t all that funny, it has a lot of ambition and is obviously made by a director with something very personal to say. I see in Apatow the spirit of a young James L. Brooks, someone who can bring manic comic energy to sometimes weepy subject matter.
But I won’t bore you with a straight-up review of the film. I didn’t feel that passionately about it one way or another. I was kind of expecting for it to fall short, it did, and I won’t see it again. Pay for your ticket, take your chance. Also, I also have a hard time hating a movie where the biggest problem is that it is simply trying to do too much. Most movies don’t try to do much at all except exploit the low standards of their audiences. There was only one thing about the film that I thought of as truly noteworthy, and it’s something that I haven’t seen any critics remark about.
Is it strange to anyone else that two of the big, trailer-worthy comic bits in the film involve one character making fun of another character’s foreign accent? The first scene happens in the doctor’s office where George Simmons (Adam Sandler), accompanied by his man servant, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), are met by a German physician (Torsen Vorges) possessing a rather thick accent. The doctor informs Simmons of the progress of his disease and doesn’t deliver the happiest of news. Simmons has already been told he will most likely die, and this visit seems to be routine. I’m honestly not sure why it even needs to be in the movie. The only true purpose it serves is to allow Simmons and Wright to make very cruel fun of the doctor’s accent with gems like “are you angry that you died at the end of Die Hard?”
It’s kind of a fucked up scene. Moments of it popped up in the film’s trailer and the T.V. spots, but I was expecting the Die Hard-reference to provide a button for the scene. Cut, print, move on. But Apatow, Sandler and Rogen spin the scene into a five minute comic line-o-rama as they get their rocks off insulting this poor guy. We get one line after another and the doctor has to announce at a certain point “I’m getting kind of annoyed by your little joke.” I think the scene is a poor reflection on the film’s humor but also a poor reflection on the audience around me that were laughing as if the scene were the funniest thing in the world. I guess cultural insensitivity is really funny as long as some imaginary person is perpetrating it.
I can’t say I’m surprised that this scene popped up in a movie with Adam Sandler as the lead, though. Anyone who has seen Big Daddy knows that he enjoys playing a violent sociopath disguised a cuddly average Joe. Maybe the audience expects this type of cruelty from Sandler and that’s why it isn’t greeted with the kind of dismay that it should be. It surprised me mainly because Judd Apatow, whether it’s in the comedies he produces or directs, never really goes to these places. His humor tends to float nicely in the innocuously irreverent vein where guys talk about their dicks a lot. Funny People has that type of humor (it isn’t very funny, but it is still there) but it also has this darker type. After the doctor’s office scene, I hoped that this cruel riff had come from Sandler’s influence and tried to get back into the movie, which I thought could still redeem itself.
The second scene of accent-fueled humor comes in the confrontation between Laura (Leslie Mann) and her Australian husband, Clarke (Eric Bana). George has been told by the Alan Rickman-sounding doctor (hoho) that he has beaten his disease (I’m not spoiling anything, the trailer tells you this much). Laura is the girl he was in love with years ago but let get away by being an unfaithful asshole (he hasn’t changed much and doesn’t by the end of the movie). He and Ira make a trip to her place in Northern California to hang out for the day.
To make a very long, very fucking convoluted story short, Clarke, who was supposed to be off on a business trip, comes home. It has been revealed that Clarke has cheated on her at some point in the past, which is supposed to make us hate him with a passion. Laura has just cheated on him with George though, and since two wrongs make a right and everything, Apatow maintains that the audience should stay unreservedly against Clarke.
I kind of liked Clarke. It is below Eric Bana to have to play a one dimensional comic villain, and he refuses to do so, emerging with a character who seems good natured enough, if slightly arrogant. But Apatow’s whole story hangs on us not liking him and siding with George and Laura. He hammers this home during the movie’s other big trailer-worthy comic moment where Laura makes fun of his Australian accent. When I saw this in the trailer, I was expecting Clarke to be a little bit more of an overt asshole. By the extremely well-calculated rules of comedy, making fun of an overt asshole is funny. When you are making fun of a nice guy though, it is just mean.
And, like in the doctor’s office, the scene goes on forever, isn’t very funny, but was still beloved by the audience I was with. Maybe people just pay their money for a comedy and if they aren’t laughing, they feel stupid for having gone at all. People like to laugh and in the absence of something truly funny, something with all of funny’s telltale signs will do. One of the reasons why this scene just doesn’t work is because its just obvious. Giving a character a funny accent and then making fun of them for having it doesn’t require a lot of comic ingenuity. I know Judd Apatow is funnier than xenophobic humor.